By Hank Parmer
I first met Fred, the Maine Coon cat, a couple of weeks after his family moved in across the alley.
Something in the bushes by our shed caught my eye, as I exited from my car on that bright, early autumn afternoon. With his "classic" tabby markings in shades of ash, Fred blended in with the hatchwork of light and shadow under the honeysuckle so flawlessly that it took me a moment to realize I was being intensely scrutinized by a pair of yellow eyes, belonging to a fairly large and strikingly handsome cat. I said "Hello", to which he responded with neither an "Eek! I've been seen! Run away!" nor a "Feed me, long-lost buddy!" glomming-on, only a complacent narrowing of his eyes. He obviously felt he belonged there. So I said "See you later" and went inside.
We became better acquainted over the next few weeks, as he'd supervise us while we were doing yardwork, or join us while we were sitting on the porch. He may have nominally resided with the family across the alley, but they weren't really cat people. I think it was more at their six-year-old's insistence that they'd taken Fred in a couple of years previously, when he was a kitten. (And a devastatingly cute one, I'll wager.) But he was full-grown now, and they were clearly more attached to their two dogs. While Fred, even though we hadn't been feeding him, preferred to hang out around our place.
Sometime in that period, Fred made up his mind to check out our house. We had two indoor cats then: Puck, the elderly Turkish Van, and Smudge, the fierce little salt-and-pepper calico who at that time was about five or six.
Whether it was jealousy or simply calico cantankerousness, she absolutely detested this newcomer from the first. To the end of her days, she mercilessly bullied him -- a diminutive seven-pound termagant who took a fiendish pleasure in tormenting this big, amiable fuzzball. Her favorite trick was to run up to him while he was sleeping, hiss, smack him on the nose and then stalk away, leaving him blinking groggily, with this "WTF is her problem?" expression.
Puck, on the other hand, immediately took to this inquisitive stranger. Which was only to be expected, for he'd had always been a serenely amicable little cuss. He was about 16 years of age then, our benevolent feline overlord, who ruled the roost through the sheer force of his adorableness. As you can see, the two quickly formed a mutual admiration and snuggling society.
I often wished the two could have spent more time together. Fred's fondness for the old man must have outweighed Smudge's hostility, because he soon became accustomed to banging on our door to let us know he'd dropped by for a visit. If we didn't hear him the first time, he'd bang the door with increasing emphasis until one of us let him in.
Eventually I was able to talk to Fred's people about having him vaccinated for rabies and feline leukemia, and started on heartworm preventative. (We lost a cat to feline leukemia long ago, before it was generally known there was such a thing, and by this point -- as I'm sure you'll have guessed -- we'd grown fond of the furry goof.) I offered to take him to the vet and pay for his vaccinations. Fortunately, they were okay with that. I'd have done it anyway, without their permission, but still ....
To make a long story short, when the family left a few months later, they asked if we'd like to keep him. Although this was only acknowledging what was by then a fait accompli, we still appreciated the gesture: So many assholes seem to think nothing of moving away and leaving an inconvenient pet behind to fend for themselves. Thus Fred officially took up residence at our home for wayward pets. We kept the name their boy had bestowed upon him. Somehow, it seemed to suit him.
Fred remained an indoor/outdoor cat for the next twelve years. This wasn't so much our choice as due to the fact that by the time he joined our household he was thoroughly set in his free-roaming ways. Whenever we had to keep him inside against his will, let's just say he made our lives ... difficult.
He spent the major portion of his time outside, particularly after Puck passed on about three years later. He'd come inside to eat, for some attention or to crash out, and to avoid the worst of the heat and cold -- although sometimes he stayed out all night even when the temperatures dipped into the lower teens.
Though it was a constant worry for us, in all that time he managed to avoid being hit by a car or carried off by a coyote -- not uncommon fates in our neighborhood. Ironically, what finally did him in made those other alternatives in retrospect seem far kinder.
So what words come to mind, when trying to describe Fred's personality? Well, "solidity", for one. If your household has been graced with an example of his breed, you'll know what I mean. Although he wasn't one of those monster Maine Coons, at between 17 and 18 pounds he was nonetheless a substantial presence. He was a low-slung beast, built like a tank, with the broadest chest I've ever seen in a house cat. When he'd conclude his regal progress across the yard with a sudden burst of speed as he galloped up our front steps, it wasn't with that typical feline bounding lope, but a motion more like a dry-land version of the breast stroke.
Maine Coon cats are sometimes described as "vertically challenged" and Fred was no exception. He was very much a ground dweller. Although once, while we were outside seeing off some visiting friends, he must have overheard us remarking to them that he wasn't a climber. Of course Fred had to give us that day's lesson in Cat Zen by immediately scooting over to a tree and swarming up it like a champion lumberjack scaling a mighty Scots Pine. But for that one instance, though, I never saw him up in a tree, or for that matter, anywhere which would have required much of a leap or a climb to reach.
He was a quiet cat, except on those occasions when he felt it necessary to make his extreme displeasure at being kept inside known to us. Despite his friendly and curious nature, Fred was fortunately never a lap kitty. His thing was to park himself on the flat wooden arm of my mission-style recliner to demand a neck, chin, ears and chest scratch. (His deep, resonant purr always reminded me of Baby, the eponymous leopard in Howard Hawk's screwball comedy.) That arm of my chair also doubled as a convenient ledge on which he could stretch out and do his "boneless filet of kitty" act. He was big enough to cover it completely, with his chin and a paw or two dangling off the edge.
When he wasn't in one of those gracefully flung poses at which he so excelled, catching up on his beauty sleep, Fred had an immense sense of his own dignity, as you could see from my post here riffing on his reaction to the big (for these parts, anyway) snow back in the winter of 2016. Which made his kittenish moods all the more hilarious. There are few things as endearingly comical as the sight of a big, fuzzy, roly-poly cat gleefully wrestling with a little catnip mouse, pausing occasionally to glance your way, to make sure you're watching. It's one of the many things that I miss about him more than I can possibly tell.
The end began in late June of last year. Fred would occasionally absent himself for a day or two, even three days, so at first we weren't too concerned about him. After he'd disappeared for five days straight, though, we were getting a bit frantic and about to start posting "Lost" signs and checking with the shelter, when to our great relief he showed up that evening. He ate a few bites of his food -- and vanished again. Joan then had a hunch, and walked over to the apartment complex at the head of our street. It turned out that some of the tenants had been feeding him because they thought he was a stray. A stray, mind you, who was wearing a new flea collar, and had a collar with a rabies vaccination tag and a name tag with our phone number.
Fred allowed her to carry him home, which in itself was a major tell he wasn't feeling up to snuff: His typical reaction to being picked up and held was to wriggle and kick like a fractious toddler. He'd lost weight, too. Ominously, among other problems, he'd picked up an intestinal parasite which the vet informed us normally only affects kittens, before their immune systems are up to speed. We were able to cure him of the parasites, though, and he began to fill out again.
As you might guess, Fred wasn't at all pleased about having to be confined indoors. Every morning I went through this routine with him where he would sit beside me on the arm of my chair and stare out the window, complaining loudly and bitterly, because I just couldn't seem to get it through my thick human skull that he should be let out nowwww! We could tell he still wasn't up to his usual self, though, because he was neither as vehement or persistent about it as he normally would have been. Still, it tore at my heart to keep the big guy cooped up.
In early August, Fred began sneezing frequently, and we noticed a slight swelling between his nose and his right eye. At first the vet thought it might be a type of fungal infection, which would have been easily treatable. But the tests showed it wasn't. It was cancer. There was simply no way we could afford to consult a veterinary oncologist, much less pay for the surgery and then the chemotherapy. Especially since by that point we were already into our own vet for almost a grand from the tests and treatments he'd needed earlier in the summer, including a teeth cleaning which also involved a couple of extractions.
(Fortunately, we are blessed with a veterinarian who'll let us pay them off over time when we run up a big bill, and they won't even charge interest. Of course, it didn't hurt that Fred was one of their favorite patients.)
I'll spare you the details of the next few months, as the cancer grew and that disastrous year dragged to its close. Just that it made a sad, horrible time exponentially more awful. It seemed a particularly cruel thing to happen to such a handsome creature.
If you've ever dealt with a pet's terminal illness you'll know what I mean when I say one of the worst parts of it is determining when it's time to end it. Fred was the one who let us know the unavoidable had come when he stopped eating. Nothing we tried could tempt him, and we weren't about to let him starve himself to death.
Fred took his last trip to the vet in the grey, chill afternoon, on Friday the 13th of January. That morning, I sat on the floor beside him, because by this point he was growing weaker and could no longer hop up onto the arm of the recliner. He leaned his chest against my leg and rested his chin on my thigh, while I petted him for so long that afterwards my arm was sore for a couple of days. Clearly, he was ready for this to be over.
The knowledge that fourteen years is a pretty good run for a cat, particularly an outdoor cat, is a small comfort. It's been over a month-and-a-half since we took him on that final journey, and months since he was last allowed outside. Yet even now, whenever the north wind rattles the screen door in back, I still find myself thinking I should drop what I'm doing and go let the big guy in. He had me just that well-trained.